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Bush's TSA


It's hard to know which Bush policies - every day, another disaster - will most immortalize this administration. But on this day, in this hour, I'm going to suggest that his name should be forever mud for his catastrophic decision to nationalize airline security after 9-11.

There is war, spending, and missed opportunities all around, but generations hence might still be suffering at the hands of the Transportation Security Administration. It was hardly opposed by any mainstream voice of opinion. But anyone with a brain cell of economic understanding knew that airline socialism was not the best way to deal with the hijacking threat.

The TSA appearance on the national scene was treated as inevitable as a reflex, as in: the rubber mallet hits the knee and the knee jerks. Yes, even in the land of free enterprise, the first political instinct of the national elite is to purport to solve any and every problem with the creation of a massive new bureaucracy. The government wins at this game but the rest of us lose.

The main effect of the TSA? We could talk about the massive increase in theft from baggage (exhibit A; exhibit B; exhibit C). It used to be the case that you only had to worry about thievery when traveling internationally, especially through countries where government agents are in charge of baggage and security. Now the same is true in the good old USA.

We could draw attention to the loss of travel freedom, such that federal snoops have become the gatekeepers that allow us to fly from here to there. If they don't like you, you can't fly. This power is not only subject to abuse; it itself is an abuse. The private sector looks for customers, and only blacklists genuine dangers. The government has a penchant for only whitelisting its political friends. Woe to those on the blacklist.

A Bush partisan may say: oh this stuff can be fixed. And yes, Congress and regulators can attempt a crackdown on TSA thievery and abuse of citizens. But the propensity will always be there in any government bureaucracy because they are not working for you but for the mythical blob called the "public sector," which is really nothing but a stash of stolen cash divided among the robber class.

But let us discuss something more practical: the incredible waste of time and the unrelenting frustration that flying has become since the TSA took over.

When you first get to the airport, you enjoy the speed and friendliness of the airline employee who processes your ticket.

Then, suddenly, the joy ends. You find yourself in the TSA mire. Your bags must be rummaged through. You must have your papers checked. You must be badgered and belittled by various functionaries who treat you like an inmate in their prison. Babies must be snatched from mothers, stinky feet must be discalced, nail files must be confiscated, and all your personal belongings must be strewn about for all to ogle.

Even so, is security increased? Doubtful. Sometimes the process seems orderly and, at other times, it seems nearly chaotic.

When you leave the grip of the TSA and finally enter the private sector again, it's like Dorothy viewing Oz. Employees, even unionized ones, work like never before to make sure that you are cared for and treated properly. They almost seem to express a kind of regret for the way everyone has been so mishandled by the TSA.

The main cost aside from respect for human dignity is time. Airlines themselves are working very hard to make up for the difference. The more quickly they can get people on and off the plane, the more flights they can run in a day. In times of thinning profit margins from the high price of gas (thanks again, Bush!), the scramble is on to save money somehow.

We read in Wired the supremely interesting saga of how airlines are experimenting with new ways of seating people. The point is to minimize the struggles between passengers. It was once thought that seating from back to front is the best way. But some experts have found that just by letting people board and find any seat, passengers work out their own difficulties and get situated. Other people who have studied this recommend a "reverse pyramid" method of seating people.

What's the goal? To speed up boarding. That makes more flights possible, improves profitability, and leads to lower prices. All of this is good for the consumer. Who wouldn't want to shave off time that one has to spend hanging around airports?

So here is one example among trillions: the airlines' interest is the same as the consumers'. Imagine that: the market at work. Might the same mechanisms be used to improve airline security? We don't know for sure how the airlines would have responded to 9-11, but whatever they did would have not been structured to punish consumers.

Instead we got the TSA, a Stalinist creation. Everyone please do his or her part to pin this dreadful agency on the Bush administration, which is precisely where the blame belongs.